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TV Ratings Clash at Cato

Late last month, Washington, D.C.'s Cato Institute hosted a debate on television's parental-guidance ratings. Cato's own Lawrence Gasman served as moderator. Rick Cotton, an executive vice president at NBC; Robert Corn-Revere, former counsel to FCC commissioner James Quello; and yours truly tackled the issue.

My fellow panelists deserve credit for representing their constituencies well. Cotton is a mouthpiece for the television industry. Corn-Revere, a hardened libertarian, comes from the so-what camp that dismisses the television ratings debate as trite political posturing. Together these gentlemen advanced a flurry of arguments dismissing the need for a serious ratings system, and proved just the opposite in the process.

1. The public already knows what's on television. Popular series, Mr. Cotton said, are "watched... by tens of millions... week after week after week. Those viewers understand the sensibility of each of those programs."

There are over 90 different series on network (non-cable) prime time TV alone. Show me a person who "understand[s] the sensibility of... those programs." And programs vary from week to week. Quick: Tell me what objectionable content will be found on next week's "Wings." You can't. The only way for a viewer - a parent attempting to monitor his child's viewing habits - to ascertain a show's content is for the network to warn him about it with a content-based ratings system.

2. Censorship! That, warned Mr. Cotton, "is what this discussion is really about... While some... may back off and say, 'No, no, that's not what we meant,' that is what is at stake."

It was a half-hearted accusation - or at least it appeared so - simply because it is so silly. Yes, some in government are prepared to legislate a content-based system if the industry refuses to do so on its own, and yes, it's probably an unconstitutional move. What is "at stake," however, is the cultural rot the entertainment industry is offering the public, especially the impressionable young. If the networks were to focus on that problem - and implement a voluntary content-based system as a preventative measure - they'd have nothing to fear, would they?

3. Parents should be more responsible and, stated Mr. Cotton, "not simply assume that [PG-rated programs] are appropriate for their children?[PG] stands for 'parental guidance suggested.'"

Another smokescreen. Actually, it's the industry itself that promotes the vagueness of the PG rating. According to the guidelines, PG shows "may contain some material that some parents would find unsuitable for younger children." In other words, PG-rated programs are acceptable most of the time for most parents of younger children - and they're just fine for older kids. With that in mind, how can Cotton's own network slap a PG on raunchy programs like "NewsRadio," "Men Behaving Badly," "Mad About You," and, lest we forget, "Friends" - and then demand parents show more responsibility...

4. It isn't necessary. Mr. Corn-Revere took a different approach, dismissing the proposed content-based system altogether: "I'm always astounded when I hear descriptions of what's on television... Even when I try to, I don't find unmarried people jumping in and out of each other's beds." How does one respond? One rolls one's eyes, that's all..

5. There's (yet) another agenda here. "We're really talking about the cultural agenda of the people who would like to roll back television to when it was a positive force in American life," was Mr. Corn-Revere's bombshell. And I proudly proclaim myself guilty as charged.

6. Television is beyond repair: "The idea that you can sanitize television, even for a block of time, and make everybody watch what you've decided is the good stuff, is beyond ludicrous in today's world," opined Mr. Corn-Revere. If you did, and offered quality programming in the process, you'd simply be doing what Hollywood did for fifty years. And maybe the millions of viewers who have left the networks in the past ten years might come back, too.

7. McCarthyism! "We have the spectacle of people on Capitol Hill giving us a show-by-show breakdown of the television schedule. Doesn't that strike anybody as odd?" wondered Mr. Corn-Revere. "We used to focus on issues like crime, war, and pollution. [Now] we live in a time of cultural McCarthyism, where any demagogue can find a ready audience."

My guess is that the Corn-Reveres sense their own irrelevance, know they're losing the debate. Name-calling is a last resort, when the ammunition is spent and one can only toss stones. The excuse well is dry. Time for the industry to come through with a real ratings system.